When I start working with a new client, before I put down a single word or offer a single piece of advice, I give myself time to fill the tank.
I consume everything they have created. I listen to them talk about their work, what they do, how they do it, and what it means to them. I don’t judge, and I don’t analyze. I listen and take it all in. I immerse myself in their world, sometimes trying out their services, and I take everything I’ve gathered and fill my artist tank with it. I eat it all up.
When you create anything, you are drawing from a well. Making things requires materials, such as ideas, images, and experiences to conceive that thing. You can’t work on an empty tank.
Remember when you first came up with the idea for the thing? Remember how you observed or got snagged on a train of thought? That happened, because you filled the tank until you caught something useful.
As you made the thing, you filled the tank with more material that would be useful. You filled your head with material and experiences that immersed you in that world and helped give shape and depth and definition to the thing.
Other times you fill the tank not knowing how it will be of use. It leaves an impression, and you don’t even realize it. Weeks or months or years later, you pull it from your tank and put it to use.
You never know how something in the tank can be used to help you. Cult favorite, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and The Cabin In The Woods, spoke about how filling the tank helps him be prolific:
“I read The Killer Angels. It’s a very detailed, extraordinarily compelling account of the Battle of Gettysburg from the point of view of various people in it and it’s historical. It’s historically completely accurate, and the moment I put it down I created Firefly, because I was like, ‘I need to tell this story. I need to feel this immediacy. I so connect with that era, the Western and how tactile everything is and how every decision is life or death, and how hard it is and how just rich it is, and how all the characters are just so fascinating.’ But so I should be on the Millennium Falcon. Now, if I only watched sci-fi I would have just had the Millennium Falcon part, which has already been done, but finding that historical texture, it literally, I put the book down and started writing Firefly. And that was my vacation from Buffy, which was two weeks. I got two weeks every year, and in that vacation I read, in 14 days, 10 books. My wife and I saw like nine plays, and that’s all we did. We just filled the tanks.”
Before the work gets down and butt is applied to chair, there is filling the tank. The tank is your fuel. It’s your collection of experiences, anecdotes, and ideas that you draw from to make your thing.
This day in age, I believe it’s harder for an artist to fill their tank. I love the Internet as much as the next person, but it constantly bombards us with distractions disguised as things that are useful. What’s that Aziz Ansari quote? Where he says the Internet is like being “a million pages into the worst book ever, and I’m never going to stop reading.” If you fill your tank, you won’t be left feeling hungry. You will come away feel satisfied, nourished, and full.
Be curious and inquisitive. Approach the world with a sense of awe and wonder, because that which is mysterious and bigger than you is going to supply an almost endless amount of fuel.
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